Racist Images: In (and Out of) Racist Context, Pt.2

Yesterday, someone (h/t June Jacobson, Dick Ranck at Brainstorms), shared the following YouTube clip as an example of inspired pedagogy.  In this clip (9:45), the (older/white/male) professor uses an extremely provocative drawing my Kara Walker, a young, African American, woman artist to get reactions from his students and spark a discussion.  (I wrote about the Kara Walker exhibit at The Whitney Museum back in 2007, here.)  The professor, John Thornton, is leading an art class and he videotapes the class and the students’ reactions as he conducts the class.  Here’s the clip:

In the context of a museum exhibit with curation that explains some of the artist’s intention, Walker’s work is meant to use racist images to question, challenge and critique stereotypes. I should say, too, that I admire Walker’s work a great deal and find it compelling, if disturbing. Yet, in this class, Thornton takes one of these images and uses it without that context. To me, this is many layers more complex than the controversy over the Delonas cartoon, and I still don’t know what I think about this use of Walker’s work. So, I’m posting it here to ask you all what you think. Is this inspired pedagogy? Or, is this a problematic use of a racist image out of context? Or, is it something else altogether?

Racist Images: In (and Out of) Racist Context, Pt.1

The NAACP protest against The New York Post and Murdoch’s News Corp for the loathsome Sean Delonas cartoon they published of a couple of weeks ago continues to spread as does the disagreement about whether or not the cartoon was racist or not, including this fascinating discussion by some of our sociological brethren over at Scatterplot. While the Scatterplot blogger Shaka called the cartoon “deeply racist to my eye,” lots of others vehemently disagreed with his take on the cartoon, and thus a lengthy debate ensued about whether or not the image is/is not racist.  While the sociology grad student who blogs at Skinny Malinky tried to infuse some scholarly literature into the discussion that recognizes the perspective of those who are the targets of such racist images (a la critical race theory), this attempt got pretty thoroughly dumped on here.   Beyond these few instances, The New York Post cartoon controversy (like the discussion of racism as a whole) goes unmentioned on most of the sociology blogs.

I still agree with Shaka (and lots of other folks) that the image is racist and part of why I think that has to do with the social context in which the image was published.

Cultural sociologist Wendy Griswold has a conceptual framework she calls the “cultural diamond” that is useful for understanding any cultural product (e.g., novel, film,  political cartoon).  I use Griswold’s work in my research and in my teaching and I think it could illuminate the discussion of racist images.    In her framework (first published here), Griswold argues that to understand a cultural product, we should always take into account four perspectives: 1) the author’s/director’s intent, 2) the audience/reader’s interpretation, 3) the text itself and 4) the social context (imagine these as four points on a baseball-diamond-like shape).   Much of the analysis of this cartoon has focused heavily on the author’s intent (e.g., “well, the cartoonist said he didn’t intend it to be racist”) and the reader’s interpretation of the cartoon (e.g., “well, I don’t read it as racist so therefore, the problem is all you people reading it as racist”).   The social context of the cartoon is the crucial, and underexamined, point here.  This cartoon did not emerge in a vacuum but rather within a very specific social milieu and context.  The cartoon was published by The New York Post (a publication with a history of white racism) after the election of the first African American president following centuries of institutionalized white supremacy, often enforced through violence, and frequently legitimated through the use of dehumanizing images of blacks, often depicting them as apes.   Without a knowledge of and appreciation for this social context, a cartoon like the one in The Post published is unfathomable.

To the impossibly young, like some of my college students born in 1990, it’s understandable that they might not know this history given that the basic facts about this country’s history of racism are still not included in the K-12 curriculum.   To the full grown adults with advanced degrees in sociology, it’s a little surprising to me that they don’t this history, but then maybe it shouldn’t be.  Still,  there’s the more immediate social context of Obama’s presidential campaign, during which he was specifically targeted with racist images by those on the right. These images were intended to demean him based on his race, and suggest something suspect about his character, rather than simply criticize him as a politician for his views.   Add to all that the further context of the racist death threats against Obama and the systematic police brutality in New York City and across the U.S. directed at black and brown folks, and the cartoon comes into focus as a piece of propaganda that legitimizes violence against non-white people (if not calling for the assassination of a sitting president).

Making sense of the images like the Delonas cartoon requires an understanding of that image within the context in which it appeared and sociology can help us understand that context.  The wider debate surrounding The Post cartoon strikes me as a little facile, as in this disappointing piece by Nat Hentoff who tries the libertarian ploy of recasting this as a first amendment issue, which only serves to deflect attention away from a discussion of racism.  There’s a much more difficult and complicated discussion to be had about racist images in and out of context, and for that, I’ll be back with Part 2.